September 14, 2008
Russian Troops Leave Western Georgia
By Steve Gutterman Associated Press
TBILISI, Georgia -- Russian soldiers and armored vehicles pulled back from positions deep in western Georgia on Saturday, meeting a closely watched withdrawal deadline a month after the war between the former Soviet republics.A Georgian policeman was shot dead near the edge of a breakaway Moscow-backed province, adding to tensions in areas where Russian troops are supposed to cede control to unarmed European Union monitors within weeks.
Georgia's government, meanwhile, pressed its claim ethnic Georgians are being persecuted in South Ossetia, the separatist region at the heart of the war. Officials said Ossetian paramilitary fighters doused Georgians with kerosene and ordered them to leave their villages.
Starting before dawn, hundreds of Russian soldiers packed up their gear and abandoned earthen-walled bases they had set up on the outskirts of the Black Sea port of Poti and at three other locations in western Georgia that they had promised to leave by Monday.
"They have fulfilled the commitment" made in an agreement worked out by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week, Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia told The Associated Press.
But Lomaia said that even with the departure of those 250 soldiers and 20 armored vehicles pulled, some 1,200 Russian soldiers still remained at 19 positions inside Georgia.
He stressed that Georgia -- like the European Union and the United States -- demands a full Russian withdrawal to prewar positions, in accordance with a cease-fire that Sarkozy brokered a month ago.
Russia is not willing to do that and is tightening its grip on the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Pushed by the West, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised last week to withdraw from the Poti positions and from posts ringing the two separatist regions within 10 days of the deployment of 200 EU monitors in buffer zones around the two areas. The EU monitors are supposed to be in place by Oct. 1.
But the Kremlin has announced plans to maintain 7,600 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia themselves and has formally recognized them as independent nations, deepening the worst crisis in Russia's rocky post-Cold War relations with the West.
Russia is also pushing to keep Western monitors outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying the EU observers' job is to protect the two provinces against Georgian aggression. The U.S. and EU want observers inside the two regions, where they are concerned about allegations of abuses against ethnic Georgians.
Georgia made new charges Saturday, saying Ossetian fighters poured kerosene on several ethnic Georgians and ordered them out of their villages late Friday.
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said Ossetian paramilitaries first set fire to houses owned by ethnic Georgian in two South Ossetian villages, Koshka and Disevi.
"Then they poured kerosene on several residents of the villages and told them to leave," Bokeria told the AP.
He said a number of residents, possibly as many as 200, had left the villages and were traveling to Georgian-controlled territory.
The New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch also has accused Ossetians of engaging in systematic harassment of Georgian civilians since the war.
In recent weeks, AP reporters have seen homes burning in more than a half dozen ethnic Georgian villages in and around South Ossetia, as well as incidents of looting by armed men -- in at least one case as Russian troops stood by.
South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva called Georgia's latest allegation "a complete lie."
"With such messages, the Georgians are trying to justify their aggression against us," she said.
Georgian forces launched an attack targeting South Ossetia's capital Aug. 7. Russia's army swiftly intervened, driving off Georgian troops and then pushing deep into Georgia in a five-day war that killed hundreds of people and displaced nearly 192,000.
The presence of Russian troops deep inside Georgia more than a month after the fighting ended has deeply angered Georgians and been an enormous sore point between Russia and the West.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said his country wants good relations with the United States, saying "mutual interests outweigh some disagreements," according to the transcript of an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro posted Saturday on his government's Web site.
But Putin said he didn't expect any thaw until the new U.S. administration takes office and, in his typically bullish fashion, said it would be up to Washington repair relations. "They spoiled them, let them improve them," he said.
An Associated Press Television News crew saw Russian soldiers lower the Russian tricolor flag and pack military trucks before dawn Saturday with blankets and other supplies at a post by a road leading to the secessionist Abkhazia region.
Russian units also left posts on the outskirts of Poti, one by a road into the city and another a few miles from Georgia's main port and devastated naval base, Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said.
"Russian forces have withdrawn completely from Poti," he said.
The presence in Poti was particularly galling for Georgians because it is more than 100 miles from South Ossetia, where the war broke out and where most of the fighting occurred.
An AP photographer saw several small columns of Russian armored vehicles crossing a bridge leading toward Abkhazia and military trucks moving over another bridge at a different location.
In the tense belt of land along Abkhazia's administrative border, a Georgian policeman was killed by gunfire that came from the direction of a post where Abkhazian and Russian forces have been based, Utiashvili said.
The shooting came three days after an almost identical incident in which a Georgian policeman was killed by shots that Georgian authorities said came from the vicinity of a Russian checkpoint outside South Ossetia.
Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said police officers at posts near the Russian-held territories around South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be replaced by Interior Ministry special forces to strengthen security.
That could increase tensions and might prompt Russia to argue that Georgia is violating the cease-fire's stipulation that Georgian troops return to their barracks, although the special forces are technically police.
Russia's withdrawal pledge is conditioned on Georgian observance of the cease-fire deal.
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